Joe Biden's Hints at Republican Picks for Cabinet Restore a Democratic Tradition | Opinion

Reports are now out that Joe Biden is considering appointing prominent "never-Trump" Republicans such as former Ohio Governor John Kasich, former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake and former Republican California Gubernatorial Candidate and former Ebay CEO Mae Whitman to make up a proposed ideologically diverse cabinet.

While the news may have been floated in order to boost Biden's appeal Republicans and independents, the rumor has results in some criticism from the left, who want Biden's cabinet choices to reflect the recent leftward swing of the party and not include former C level executives. Either way, a GOP cabinet member should not be a surprise, nor should it be much cause for concern. Presidents have long taken a bipartisan approach to the cabinet. And cabinet members are not the power source they may seem to be.

The choice of a token opposite party member has become de rigueur for both parties over the last few decades. Biden is unusual in that there is discussion of such an appointment prior to the election, but the decision is one that looks to present a bipartisan face to the voters, and potentially to the defeated opponents, before the governing starts. Frequently, the cross party choice is someone to handle a second-tier departments – both Bush and Obama reached across the aisle for Transportation Secretaries.

The Democrats have taken a different tack with one of the four most prominent cabinet positions—Defense. In the last century, there have been no secretaries of state or attorney generals who crossed party lines. There have been three bipartisan treasury secretaries, but the most recent one, Richard Nixon's second treasury secretary, Democrat John Connally became a Republican mere months after his short stint at treasury.

But Democrats have looked to Republicans for Defense. Since 1940, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose Republican Grandees Henry Stimson and Frank Knox to serve as Secretary of War and Secretary of Navy in order to present a united front for the impending war, Democratic presidents have tapped Republicans to serve as their top Defense leader. This is so much of a standard selection that Republicans have served as Defense or War Secretary for more than half of the 40 years of Democratic administrations.

Presumably, these cross-party selections for Defense Secretary can be used for Democrats to blunt charges that they are "weak on defense" or soft on military issues.

The Republicans have little interest in this type of bipartisan behavior. No Democrat has been selected to lead the defense or the earlier "war" department by a Republican president since the William Howard Taft administration.

Despite—or perhaps because of—his lack of deep ties to the GOP, Donald Trump departed from this strategy of bipartisan appointments. There was discussion about appointing Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp to serve as Energy or Agriculture Secretary, but nothing came of it. Unlike the other bipartisan selections, this move did not appear to be about working together, but instead was focused on removing a Democratic member of the Senate in states that were very likely to appoint or elect a Republican to the seat.

Biden's choice is unlikely to be so nakedly political—especially since there are not too many sitting Republican Senators who would make the move. But that has not quieted concerns. What should make it easier is the reality that cabinet members have become significantly less important in writing policy than in earlier time period. Most of the major decisions are made by the White House staff, and cabinet members frequently find themselves as a frustrated executive rather than true policymakers.

Biden's discussion of bipartisan behavior in his cabinet appointments is a low-cost way to appeal to some of the small groups of undecided swing voters. It is also in keeping with recent tradition. If he wins, the fact that the only recent president that did not look across the aisle for a cabinet appointment would be the man he defeated may be further impetus for such a move. .

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He writes theRecall Elections Blog.